What is art? Can it be defined?
Some prominent philosophers in history have maintained the notion that the nature of what is real or perceived isn’t quite as clear-cut as you would think. Locke posited that the video game controller you hold in your hand isn’t a video game controller in any direct sense, rather a collection of ideas that you derive from perceiving qualities of the controller (size, shape, functionality). Oh, the controller is a real thing, it’s just that the true form of it cannot be deduced. Berkeley modified Locke’s philosophy a bit by going further and stating that nothing exists independent of the mind, that everything is a collection of ideas and that minds are the only things that exist (esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived). Whether or not you believe in this Empiricist/Idealist approach, art can be viewed or defined as the flexible language of pure ideas, a method of communicating abstract things just beyond the realm of the five senses.
Art’s purpose is to convey, express; art doesn’t exist to exist, nor is its purpose to inhabit space or to be used practically. Rocks just exist and inhabit space; hammers are practical tools to break rocks. Art is a combination of the creator’s energy, use of ideas, and execution. The use of ideas includes how they are shaped and what ideas are used in these shapes to form the overall structure. By nature, we humans are structured beings. We live in precisely created structures (some of which can be viewed as works of art if you’re in to architecture). Even the universe is a structured entity in a macroscopic sense at the least. So it is no surprise that we instill structure in the ideas contained within what we create. Structured ideas create new ideas, invoke moods, recall other ideas. When shaped by a true artist, the collection and interplay of ideas become transformative in the lives of those experiencing it, shaping, structuring the way they live in and view the world. Art.
Given all this, what is the status of videogames as a medium by which art is delivered?
Painting, sculpting, architecture, music, still photography, and film are a few of the established, recognized, structured art forms that we have (and some still don’t view film as art). For the most part, these things started out as inventions to have something else to do, or as an experimental extension of a previous form of expression. It took experimenting by an artist and other processes including audience recognition and future adaptation of certain elements by other artists for the art to come into existence. Painters experimented with framing, perspective, color, texture, and eventually with time and space itself within the painting–all part of an evolutionary process that has one generation of artists making a contribution to the structure of the art form, then the next taking it and elaborating on it further while interjecting their own ideas. The constituent elements of “framing” or “perspective” themselves are basically abstract substructures of ideas nested within the discipline of an art, created or brought into existence by people defining and bestowing value upon them.
The closest recognized art form to videogames, film, followed the same kind of progression. Movies have been around for the whole of the 20th century till the present day. In contrast, videogames have effectively been around for far less time, since the 60s and 70s. For film, it wasn’t until the 40s that Orson Welles arrived on the scene–the director whom many consider the first master of cinema in his Citizen Kane and other movies. It probably wasn’t until the 60s or 70s that critics and others started recognizing film as potential works of art, though I’m admittedly guessing on this. It was in ‘68 that Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that arguably exploited the true, unique power of cinema, of art as moving pictures and sound.
As for videogames, have we currently in our midst a Kubrick, Malick, or Welles, a spiritual equivalent who utilizes the intrinsic interactive property of the medium meaningfully? I would personally argue for Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus) or the resident game legend Shigeru Miyamoto. Concerning legendary games, Super Metroid to me is probably the most important two-dimensional game there exists; and I’ll take Super Mario 64 regarding three dimensions. Another important milestone game worth mentioning is Half Life for its contribution to a new narrative form. However, there is no broad recognition of these names and games out there. I think in part it takes gamers writing about these things carefully and reverently in order to sow the seed that games are indeed art forms (not to mention more time for the seeds to grow). I will elaborate further my ideas about the artistic structuring of videogames in future articles.
The hard question–partially addressed in my last article–remains: what presentations of ideas constitute art? How much of art is created in retrospect by those who collectively engage and define it? To those questions, there is definitely no decisive answer. The beauty of it is that you will have to find art yourself, much like one would discover religion. But don’t expect to be taken seriously if you proclaim that Vanilla Ice or Uwe Boll are true artists, or Scientology is a true religion.
Feel free to send any questions or comments pertaining to this article to seif(at)graffiti(dot)net